The Ottoman Relocations of Armenians 1915
“Armenian genocide” day is commemorated on 24th April each year. However, it is unlikely anybody actually died on this day in 1915. What happened was the arrest and internment of a couple of hundred Armenians connected with the Dashnaks. Quantities of arms were seized and suspects were moved to various locations and placed under house arrest or told to report to police regularly. Most of these detainees were subsequently released. Only a minority, around 20, were found guilty of treason and hung by the Ottomans. The relocation or forced migration of Armenians did not actually begin until June 1915.
The catastrophe that engulfed the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire has been narrowed down to a single question: Was the Government in Istanbul guilty of Genocide? Neither International Law nor historical analysis supports such an allegation.
An event can only be understood in relation to other events in history within the context of cause and effect. If an event is extracted from the course of history then historical understanding of that event is impossible. So context is required to explain what really happened to produce an event. The context of this disastrous event is the Great War of 1914 and the Armenian revolutionary groups’ insurrection that occurred in conjunction with an existential crisis caused by an assault on the Ottoman Empire by an alliance of Great Powers. The relocation of the Armenians was a consequence, therefore, of an unprecedented opportunity presented to Armenian revolutionary groups to attain their political objectives.
The Ottoman government offered the Dashnak revolutionaries a deal at the outbreak of the European war. At their conference held in Erzurum, in Ottoman territory, during July 1914, the ARF were promised autonomy if they stood by the Empire and fought against a Russian invasion. Garegin Pasdermadjian, the Dashnak leader, admits that the Armenians would have been treated lavishly if they had accepted the offer. However, the Dashnaks refused to state their position. Some were probably tempted to accept. However, the more vigorous elements like Pasdermadjian, Andranik and Dro had already decided to throw in their lot with the Imperialist Powers, despite understanding the catastrophic results of failure. By then plans had been made, arms were being smuggled in and infiltration across the border was taking place.
In 1914 the Russians and the other Entente Powers had every interest in stirring up Armenian rebellion to further their war effort while the Ottomans had every interest in preserving good relations with the Armenians. Intention is a very important element in judging the nature of an event. The Ottomans had no objective interest in creating an Armenian ‘genocide’. Their interest lay in maintaining the Armenians as a loyal and functional community within the Ottoman Empire and the government would undoubtedly have preferred it if the Armenians had remained that way.
The Allied strategy was aimed at capitalizing on the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic entity with great diversity. The Entente had most of its forces tied down fighting the Germans so it did not have armies sufficient for a great military assault on the Ottomans. Its best way to destroy the Ottoman state was from within, by encouraging minority groups to rebellion. There were 22 million people in the Ottoman Empire but only 10 million Turks. The other 12 million were Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks and Jews. If some of these groups rebelled on promises from the Allies the Ottoman state would be disabled and potentially destroyed with a minimum of Allied military assistance and casualties.
An estimated 20,000 Armenians engaged in armed activity behind the Ottoman lines in early 1915, rising to 50,000 at the height of the insurrection, while about 200,000 Armenians were to fight with the Russians. In the winter of 1914/15 the Armenians played a crucial part in the Sarikamis disaster when an entire Ottoman army of 80,000 was lost. Around 100,000 Moslem civilians were killed by Armenian insurgents before June 1915, when the relocation policy was instituted.
It is the forced migration policy that is the centerpiece of the “genocide” allegation against the Turks. However, such a policy was actually in accordance with standard military practice of the time. Edward Erickson in his 2013 book ‘Ottomans and Armenians: A Study in Counterinsurgency’ examines the forced migration of a section of the Armenian populace by the Ottoman authorities in 1915 and comes to the conclusion that it was purely a military measure. He describes it as relocation rather than exile, deportation or ethnic cleansing because he found nothing to suggest, i.e. no evidence, that the Ottomans had any intention of permanently moving the Armenians and there was plenty of evidence, both from Ottoman and Armenian sources (e.g. Pasdermadjian, the Armenian insurrectionist) that there was every intention of returning them after the war emergency.
The problem the Ottomans had in 1915 was that they were fighting a four front war, courtesy of simultaneous British/French and Russian invasions. The Armenian relocations, although mainly conducted in the area where the Russian threat was, were not instituted until the Gallipoli landings in April 1915 produced an absolute existential threat to the state through complete encirclement. Once the British invasion was beaten off at the end of 1915 the relocations were wound down.
The Ottomans viewed initial Armenian risings as a significant but not an existential threat, so they did not immediately institute a relocation policy. Tens of thousands of Armenian young men had joined the bands of Pasdermadjian and Andranik or had deserted the Ottoman Army and gone over to the Russians with their weapons. There had been a large ambush in Zeitun by Armenian insurgents which resulted in the deaths of over 500 Ottoman soldiers on the main supply route into Syria. But the Ottomans were aware the general Armenian populace were not participating in the insurrection and did not take action against them. It was only with the landings at Gallipoli that a different kind of war began to develop as British and French invasions put the Ottoman State in dire peril.
As Erickson shows the problem of the Armenian population became acute as the Ottoman armies had to man the defences on the four fronts. The breakdown in Ottoman State infrastructure and authority caused by the invading Allied armies was the major factor in turning the position of Armenians and other Christian groups from one of mainstays of the commercial infrastructure of the Ottoman Empire and “the loyal community” into a problematic element within it.
The Armenian rising in Van, in April 1915, was an important trigger to the relocations. This was orchestrated by the Armenian revolutionaries in conjunction with a simultaneous offensive by the Russians. It may have begun as a defensive insurrection in the minds of the Armenian civilian populace but it resulted in a massacre of Turks and Kurds and the handing of the city over to the Russian Army. It put an 80 mile dent in the front in favour of the Tsar’s armies and was a watershed in the Ottoman response.
The Ottomans found a serious threat developing to their lines of communication by early 1915. Armenian irregulars were ambushing Ottoman reinforcements, attacking military supply columns, cutting important telegraph communications to the rear of the lines and killing Moslems in undefended villages. These were not sporadic risings of ordinary Armenians. They were obviously well-planned and co-ordinated sabotage operations that were aimed at preventing the Ottoman armies from defending the state. They occurred at strategic points on the supply lines to the Ottoman Third army in the Caucasus, the Sixth army in Mesopotamia and the Fourth Army in Palestine. They therefore cut these armies, defending Ottoman territories off from their vital supplies of ammunition, food, fodder, medical supplies, fuel, animals, spare parts and reinforcements.
In previous insurgent situations (e.g. 1890s) the Ottomans had applied a straight military solution to such risings. They sent in their armies, the military dealt with the insurgents and there was often a retaliation against the civil population by locals afterwards. However, the Great War context meant a new strategy had to be adopted because the military, occupied by invading forces on four fronts, lacked the ability to carry out the traditional measures of internal security.
The new Ottoman counterinsurgency measure was most probably inspired by Spanish action in Cuba (1896), US action in the Philippines (1901) and British measures against the Boers in South Africa (1901) where successful relocations of civilian populations were employed by western states to deal with insurgencies. If the great civilised powers were using such methods, and using them effectively, it seemed reasonable for the Ottomans to do likewise.
The Ottoman relocation of Armenians was not a general deportation of the Ottoman Armenian population. Talat Pasha’s Memorandum of 26 May 1915 identified the problem at hand. It noted that “some of the Armenians living close to the battlefields… did everything to obstruct the operations of the army against the enemy, prevented delivery of supplies and munitions to the soldiers on the battlefields , collaborated with the enemy and some of them joined the enemy ranks… they carry out armed attacks against the military forces and innocent civilians.”
The solution to this problem is found in the Sultan’s Decree of 31 May 1915 which stated that: “The conduct of such rebel elements rendered it necessary to remove them from the areas of military operations and to evacuate the villages serving as bases of operations and shelters for the rebels.” It clearly defines the area affected as containing the provinces of Van, Bitlis, Erzurum and a number of sanjaks, with certain areas within these provinces and sanjaks clearly excluded from the policy. This shows that this was a military policy aimed at quelling a perceived security threat and not a political move against the general Armenian population.
There is actually no evidence of a premeditated plan on the Ottoman’s part to remove the general Armenian population. A Law was passed openly to declare the state’s intention and so that preparations could be made. Time was not always available in war areas where Russian armies were close. However, it was insisted that convoys were guarded and life protected.
At least 350,000 Armenians in Western Anatolia remained in their homes, unmoved. Here, suspected Dashnaks were singled out by Ottoman intelligence, arrested and detained – but no relocations occurred of the general populace. Armenians in Istanbul were largely left alone and Moslems in the east were also moved. In fact, more Moslems suffered forced migration during 1915-16 than Armenians and there was a relocation of up to 800,000 non-Armenians from the war-zones. As Kemal Cicek has noted, relocation convoys had their priests, canteens, and were provided with oxen and carts. Missionaries kept a watchful eye on proceedings. Armenian possessions were neatly stored and labelled to await their return. All these things tend to suggest there was no genocidal intent.
During the relocations individual Turks and Kurds did a lot of terrible things to the people being relocated. Kurdish bands, who were beyond the authority of the state, and who were outlaws in a war situation, resisting conscription, attacked convoys. Ottoman employees robbed and killed people for personal gain and there were undoubtedly massacres conducted by locals, angered at the Armenian betrayal and reports of atrocities against fellow Moslems.
Talaat Pasha, the architect of the migration policy, established commissions in late 1915 to investigate abuse and crimes, and ended the relocation policy in the winter of 1915/16. Thousands of Ottoman officials were subsequently tried for the maltreatment of the Armenians and about ten per cent were hung. These included commanders who failed to protect columns. Criticism can be made about the inadequacy of the operation and the failure of the commissions to punish all war criminals but it is a fact that the Ottomans had no intention of annihilating a race.
The forced migration policy adopted by the Ottoman State to deal with the Armenian insurrection was outstandingly successful. Once the insurgents behind the front were separated from their mass base the small forces available to the Ottomans mopped up the Dashnak bands.
Around 650,000 Armenians were relocated to Syria/Iraq. An estimated 350,000 fled east to Russian territory under the influence of the war. Russia refused them right to return when they took the territory in which they lived. Over 160,000 died in this relocation, which took place entirely outside Ottoman territory, in the Russian-held South Caucasus. About 500,000 Armenians were counted by US observers in 1916 in Syria/Iraq. It appears, as far as we can be sure, that over 70% of Armenians survived forced migration by the Ottomans. The highest ratios of Armenian mortality occurred among those who remained in the battlefield areas and who were not moved. Around 400,000 Armenians remained in their homes at the time of the Armistice in 1918, out of the pre-War Ottoman Empire’s population of 1.6 million.
The nearest likely total death toll of Armenians during the War is 650,000. This figure is often inflated to 1.5 million and it is inferred that it came about exclusively from Ottoman massacre and death marches i.e. an intentional policy of genocide. However the 650,000 described includes all deaths, military and civilian, from all circumstances – natural, violent, starvation, disease etc. and takes in the entire period between 1914 and 1922. It has been estimated that more than 300,000 Armenians died in the conflict entirely outside the relocations. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in the Russian/Armenian retreats in the east and the French retreats in Cilicia in the period after the Armistice. The British naval blockade produced widespread starvation and death from disease in Syria, and elsewhere. The Royal Navy’s official history of its Blockade claims that it was more successful in Ottoman territories than against Germany – and it resulted in nearly a million deaths across Europe.
Something that is never done is comparing mortality rates – since Moslem casualties are of little consequence to the promoters of a one-sided narrative. Prof. Justin McCarthy, a demographer who has conducted the most extensive research in this area, has found that mortality was comparable between various peoples, at around 40%, in both Moslem and Armenian communities in the killing grounds of eastern Anatolia. In the western Ottoman Empire about 25% of the Moslem population perished. In the areas of the eastern provinces, where the major conflict with the Armenians occurred, around 1.2 million Turks and Kurds died with a mortality of 60% in places like Van. Armenians massacred Moslems and Moslems massacred Armenians in the destabilisation caused by the Great War and the shifting lines of battle. It was a war of extermination in which often the attitude was kill or be killed.
It is not at all a convincing argument to suggest that the Ottomans had any intention or plan to wipe out the Armenians. There was a complete absence of such an ideal in Ottoman literature and the appliance of the basic historical principle of cause and effect suggests that the relocations were a military innovation, however badly they might have been handled in the war conditions and general break down of law and order.
This was an enormous tragedy for the various peoples who made up the Ottoman Empire. However, historians should not distort or simplify its complexity, ignoring the overall historical context of one of the many catastrophes brought about by the Great War of 1914.