Memoirs of Armen Dadian (1894-1975) - Dadian Armen

Chapter 2 (Second Part):

What I Witnessed at the Battle of the Dardanelles

In those days, this was the reality for countless people, especially Armenians, but also many Turks who opposed the government’s policies but were powerless to alter them. We heard second-hand accounts of the failure of Enver’s offensive on the Erzurum front, but we could never imagine that this failure would be attributed to Armenian saboteurs. Supposedly, Enver was poised to break through the Caucasus Front with his lightning offensive, but infiltrators had turned over plans of the offensive to the Russian high command. Who could possibly be the traitors? Armenians, of course. The highest-ranking Armenian officers in the armed forces were corporals or majors, because Armenians had only been allowed into the forces for three or four years. So in reality, no Armenian soldier or officer had the security clearance to obtain the plans of that offensive, let alone the ability to pass them on to the Russians. Such plans were always strictly classified, and it would have been impossible for a newly conscripted Armenian officer to obtain access to them. Besides, there were foreign and even Turkish secret agents in Istanbul and on the various fronts. But a scapegoat was needed, and the Armenians were best suited for that role, especially as Armenia was a physical obstacle to the creation of Greater Turan. And so Said Halim (prime minister), Talaat (minister of interior affairs), Enver (minister of war), Behaeddin Shakir, Azmi, and a few other monsters decided to deport the Armenian population, a decision that was condemned by countless foreign, and even Turkish, witnesses. In my case, I was only a simple citizen, a newly conscripted officer, and I was surrounded by simple soldiers and officers, far from Istanbul. I had almost no way of learning anything of the aforementioned events. I performed my duties without grumbling and without sabotaging the Turkish war effort. Even if I wished to, I couldn’t, as I was an exceedingly ordinary and unimportant officer, still far away from the battlefields. My colonel was fond of me as a conscientious officer. But it was also possible for me to inspire the envy of newly commissioned Turkish officers with my comfortable position. And in fact, motivated by envy, one of them one day made allegations against me to the major. According to military regulation, one of the majors was tasked with keeping order and discipline in the barracks. We took turns reporting to him, and sometimes he would communicate orders to us via a newly commissioned officer. One day, this officer relayed an order to me to take horses and carts to the Maritsa River on the following day. There, I would find piles of grass that I would bring back to the barracks. I replied that it was not my turn to fetch the grass from the riverbanks, but since the major had issued the order, I would carry it out. But this officer, who was a mere lieutenant like me, and with whom I had undergone much of my military training and education, deliberately twisted my words and told the major that I had refused to carry out the order. According to military law, disobeying an order was a punishable offense, with the punishment proportional to the importance of the order. A soldier always had to carry out direct orders, even if he objected to them or felt they were illegal. Only afterwards could he appeal to the superiors of the officer who had issued the orders, and lodge a formal complaint. These were the provisions of military law, and such protests were supposed to be relayed up the chain of command.

The major summoned me and reprimanded me severely for having dared refuse to carry out his orders. I told him that I had not refused, that I had said that it was not my turn, but that I would carry it out nevertheless. Barely having heard part of my answer, the major jumped to his feet and tried to slap me in full view of other officers and soldiers. The other officers jumped into the fray and held him back, but screaming that I was a “Traitor to the nation and a perfidious turncoat,” he ordered the men to take my sword and to lock me up in a room.

Also according to military law, the major had been addressing me as a superior officer, and was imposing discipline on me, and therefore had to be wearing his uniform and sword, which he wasn’t. And naturally, he had absolutely no right to slap me, or to call me a traitor to the nation, or to sit in his room and drink liquor in full view of the other officers, etc. It behooved him to immediately summon the officer who had communicated his order to me and to question him once again regarding my supposed insubordination. If he had found me guilty, he should have officially demanded my sword, and imprisoned me until the following morning (as it was already late), at which point I would be handed over to the military tribunal. I spent the night as a prisoner. The next morning, the colonel, who was also the president of the military tribunal, summoned me unofficially and asked for an explanation. I gave him a full account of the incident.

Let me also add that the major who had punished me was an Arab from the Aleppo area. He called me a traitor to the nation at a time when Prince Faisal (who later became a remarkable king) and some other Arab tribal leaders had declared open rebellion against Viceroy Jemal Pasha in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

After hearing me out, the colonel said – “All of this casts the major in a bad light. It could even be enough to strip him of his rank. But he’s an old, married man, and I have sympathy on him. If you’re amenable to reconciliation, I wish to call him in and mediate between you.” I had been a law student before the war, and would have become a practicing lawyer after just one more year of studies. As such, I had a keen sense of justice, which recoiled at this suggestion. But I was also an Armenian, and the prevailing atmosphere in the country had become very unfavorable for Armenians. So I agreed to the colonel’s plan. My decision was based on the circumstances and the fact that if I had been dragged before a military tribunal, all the witnesses would be either Arab or Turkish. I also deemed it wise to respect the colonel’s wishes, especially as he was a good man and I had great respect for him. He summoned the major, and he reconciled us. The issue was resolved.

But two or three days later, I was reassigned to the position of assistant officer to the corporal in charge of the transportation of ammunition. The decision was probably taken on the lieutenant colonel’s orders, whose assistant officer was another Aleppo Arab. The lieutenant colonel was also a religious zealot and perhaps did not want to have an Armenian officer directly under his command. My presence forced him to have daily contact with a gyavour. Or perhaps this reassignment indicated the importance being placed on the transportation of ammunition, as we were on the verge of being deployed to the front.

And so, two-three days later, the entire regiment set out for the Gallipoli Peninsula – the front. The horse-drawn guns and ammunition carts wound their way forward through the night, without rest, to the south-east, reaching their first stop, Ouzoun Keopri [Uzunköprü], around 10 o’clock on the following day. “Ouzoun Keopri” meant long bridge, and it was an unremarkable town. Its eponymous stone bridge dated from the years of the Byzantine Empire, and had 13-14 arches, spanning a river with swampy banks, as well as a wide gorge. The journey was not too difficult for the guns and horses, but did take a toll on the supply carts, which were old and shriveled. The wheels were especially inadequate, and under the weight of the supplies they carried, shattered like glass on the uneven and pockmarked roads. When it was impossible to repair the wheels, we would just tie a log to the bottom of the carts and continue our slow crawl. We marched on, with some difficulty, until dawn. In the morning, through the clouds of dust that our columns raised, a hill appeared before us, with some windmills on it. I don’t know if the sails of those windmills were welcoming us or if they were bidding us to travel on and never return. For more than a year, hundreds of thousands had traveled down this road, and only a very few had returned alive and unharmed. The Gallipoli Campaign was the first of the wide-scale battles that Turkey fought during the war.

Finally, after scaling this hill, we reached the town of Keshan [Keşan], which stood alone in this desert landscape. The town was Turkish-populated, and aside from the windmills we had seen, it consisted only of a few large buildings built of black and white stones and a few farming structures.

We stayed in our tents until evening, and then set out again towards the peninsula. In the dark of the night, we trudged through snaking footpaths until it was almost dawn. We marched past one or two villages, and eventually reached a newly built highway, with our carts in a pitiful state, their wheels broken, and the horses and mules in even worse shape. The highway led us up a hill then down again. A few minutes later we started climbing down a steep slope that led us down to the neck of the peninsula, which consisted of a deep and dark valley, on the shore of the Aegean Sea. A few kilometers later, we could already discern the lights of the British battleships anchored off the eastern coast of Mudros Island. When we saw these lights, our convoy paused for a moment, and stood still and silent. From that point on, we were forbidden from smoking or speaking loudly.

In the terrible darkness, the ghost of death wandered these beaches and this deep valley. The beaches of Marmara were in the distance eastern tip of the valley. If the British detected our convoy, they could easily rip us to shreds in mere minutes with their huge shells. There was no shelter to be had for horses, carts, or men.

The highway proceeded along the coast and climbed until apparently ending at a mountain pass located at an altitude of 60-70 meters above sea level. The mountains looked like a curtain falling onto the road, and the pass was blocked by windmills with torn sails. This was the village of Bolayır, perched in this narrow pass and in partial ruins. The sun had already risen, and from there we could see the Aegean Sea on one side, while behind us was the deep valley we had crossed, with its rocky hills and its thorny thickets. The highway had only been recently built, probably by unarmed Armenians conscripts. Some of our regiment’s soldiers, taking some of the guns and supply carts with them, continued to advance towards the depths of the peninsula through desiccated vineyards and abandoned fields and hills. Not only people, but even birds seemed to have fled towards the windmills in the north. The western coast of the peninsula had almost entirely been transformed into battlefields. But we continued our journey, and after advancing another 8-10 kilometers, we reached the town of Gallipoli, on the western shores of the Marmara and near the entrance of the strait. The town had been destroyed by the shelling from the battleships anchored off Mudros Island. A few unexploded 38-centimeter naval shells, each the size of a man, remained plunged in the fields as mementos of the destruction.

We reached another deep valley, beyond which were the beachhead positions of Anafarta [Büyükanafarta Köyü], [Koja] Chemen Tepe, Ari Bournou, and Sedd el Bahr – meaning the landing zones of the British, and the same sites that had recently claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both sides.

I remained in these valleys for about two months, as an officer of the reserves. Then I was ordered to proceed to a military base about 5-6 kilometers away. I stayed there for only 2-3 days, until I received the order to proceed to the front lines. Fortunately, by then, the frenetic pace of the initial days of the battle had subsided, replaced by trench warfare.

By this time, the persecution of Armenians had reached its peak and the deportations were in full swing. Suspicion and distrust of Armenian officers was growing. I, too, as an Armenian officer, was viewed with suspicion, but the army still had great need of officers. As a solution to this dilemma, a new directive was issued and I was deployed to the frontline as an assistant officer to a corporal responsible for a position on the beach.

I had my own horse for the journey, so another mounted soldier escorted me to the corporal in question, who commanded a squad armed with two artillery guns. The squad was deployed on the flanks of Hill Number 40, one of the many small hills on the coast of Aegean. Upon arrival at the trenches, I left my horse in the care of my escort and made my way to the position. The corporal saw me from afar, and signaled me to approach him. He welcomed me with a smile – “Only if you had arrived a few minutes ago, you would have taken part in the artillery duel we just had with the British.” “Where did this duel take place?” I asked. “There!” he replied, and pointed towards the area separating our own two guns from a British motorboat with its own 24-centimeter gun.  This duel was resumed almost every day, without causing much damage to either side. The British boat was wary of coming too close to the beach, and our 7.5-centimer shells did not pose much of a threat to it. As for their shells, they would hurtle past our position and explode on the flanks of the other hills or at the summit of ours, raising earth and showering us with large rocks and countless pieces of shrapnel, which whizzed and whistled past us and over us, only rarely hitting us or our guns. In truth, our main fear wasn’t the shells, but rather the rain of shrapnel and rocks, which could easily sever a limb or decapitate us – a common occurrence during those days of ferocious fighting. About 500-600 meters south of our position was the military base of Ferik Mustafa Kemal, built into the side of a mountain. Mustafa Kemal had only earned one of the stripes necessary to become a pasha, but he was the commander of that section of the front, alongside his staff. This position was often the target of intense shelling from the giant battleships. The shells targeting the base were always 24-, 32-, and 38-centimeter in caliber. When they hit, the hill, which was called Kiredj Tepe (“Dirt Hill”) or Arslan Tepe [Aslantepe] (“Hill of the Lion”), was lost in a cloud of sparks, dirt, shattered rock, and shrapnel. But still, the explosions caused no real damage, because the naval guns could not deliver the shells at the correct angle and directly strike the positions on the slopes of the mountains. Again, the danger came from flying shrapnel and rocks.

The corporal was around forty years of age, with a large mustache. He was a simple and uneducated man and drank in the evenings, but he never became heavily intoxicated and never beat the soldiers. He always treated me with respect and never made any anti-Armenian comments. He was not interested in politics, nor did he understand it. He was neither a religious nor a nationalist extremist. He just told guileless jokes, without any insulting or prejudicial overtones.

While stationed at this position, I received a card through the post from my brother, who had apparently been deported to Raqqa. I did not know that by law, the families of soldiers, and especially officers, were exempted from deportations. Stranded at the top of that hill, how could I have heard of the passage of such a law? We neither met travelers, nor did we receive any newspapers. To help my brothers, I sent ten Ottoman pounds to a wealthy man, who was the member of parliament from our city (Ourfa), but I never learned if that money reached my brothers, nor was it returned to me, as the regulations mandated. They could’ve survived for 3-4 months with that money. Most probably, either a postal employee or the rich delegate pocketed it. The latter later went blind and fell into penury, and his extremely valuable farmlands located in Tell Abiad (near Raqqa) were taken over by Armenians, and with the approval of the French, were incorporated into Syria.

Our wages were paid in a timely manner, at the start of every month, with the cost of our food deducted from our pay. Our daily military rations consisted of a kilogram of bread and wheat soup, string beans cooked in fetid olive oil, beans, or some kind of vegetable cooked with ox meat. In fact, the only thing that grew on the peninsula was common grass. Despite these Spartan conditions, the Turkish soldiers fought well and were willing to sacrifice themselves for their Sultan, the earthly representative of their prophet, with the expectation of automatic entry into paradise. Many of them came from villages where their diet consisted of much less.

Soldiers also received a small amount of soap for washingt, and often had access only to cold water. They never caught sight of sugar, and even we officers had not received any sugar of late. I once tried to add molasses to coffee to sweeten it, but the resulting mixture was repellent, so I didn’t try again. The wages of the officers were often paid from the German treasury, as the war had become a German affair, and the Turks had become the Germans’ hired guns.

One day, Kemal was instructed to begin using the regiment’s shells sparingly. We faced the possibility of running out of ammunition.

And in fact, our armaments included French and Belgian shells, which we found to be dangerous when fired from our guns. Even the slightest difference in the diameter of a shell could result in the cannon exploding, or at least in the warping of the rifling inside the barrels, rendering our guns useless. The dearth of ammunition continued until the entry of Bulgaria into the war. And right around those months, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers. After this, not only did the flow of our supplies increase, but the war was also extended by another two years, to the detriment of the Armenians and the benefit of Turkey, because as a result Germany could more easily supply Turkey with money, supplies, and even with soldiers and commanders. Otherwise, Turkey would have been compelled to lay down its arms and to put an end to the deportations and anti-Armenian campaign that had already begun.

Bulgaria’s entry into the war also paved the way for the capture of Romania by the Austro-German forces. Even Turkish divisions were transferred there, and this greatly contributed to the extension of the war and the reversal of Turkey’s fortunes on the Caucasus front. It was perhaps for this reason that the Russian forces that had reached Dirgranakerd [Diarbekir] and Djabaghchour began retreating, a catastrophic event for Armenians they left behind. And the extension of the war was definitely responsible for allowing the fomenting revolutionary movement in Russia to gain steam. Eventually, the rotted and fetid Czarist edifice collapsed and gave way to the rule of the Menshevik Paty, and the latter’s moderate methods paved the way for the rise of the brutal Bolshevik Party, which soon gobbled up all of Russia, as well as Eastern Europe and Western Asia, unleashing chaos in its wake. These upheavals triggered renewed calamities for the defenseless and helpless Armenian people, first in Turkey, and later in the Caucasus.

Political developments have a way of overpowering and destroying nations that are not actual actors on the scene, but are rather mere victims. In the grander scheme of this world war, what value did a nation like ours represent? The war was an opportunity for Turkey to solve the Armenian problem in whatever way it saw fit, without any fear of jeopardizing its own interests. It could even act against the political and economic interests of Germany, without any fear of repercussions. Turkey succeeded because no force could stop it from implementing its plans. Even Germany was unable to restrain Turkey.

What did Bulgaria gain? A bit of land on the banks of the Maritsa, the Karaaghadj [Karaağaç] Station, alongside a handful of homes and orchards, and a few medals for King Ferdinand, who was German by birth. In addition, it exacted revenge on Serbia and Greece, who had used the Karaaghadj Station and the Macedonian fields to supply their armies during the Balkan Wars.