Special for the Armenian Weekly
Much ink has been spilled on the atrocities the Armenians witnessed during World War I. As the centennial of the Great War approaches, Turkey and Armenia are preparing to commemorate the victorious Gallipoli Campaign and the still-denied Armenian Genocide, respectively. The harsh years of the war installed dreadful images of brutal massacres and deportations in the collective memory of the Armenian nation. Yet, little is known, or at least remembered, of the heroic acts of the Armenian Legion (or the Legion d’Orient, as it was known), which served under the flags of French and British troops and spearheaded the victory of the Allied forces in the Levant.
In the following article, I provide an overview of the history of the Armenian Legion, from its establishment to the heroic Battle of Arara. I first describe the important contributions of the Armenian troops in the Levantine campaigns conducted by the Entente forces; second, analyze its formation in light of the geo-political negotiations among the Entente powers; and third, examine the motivations, the enthusiasm, and the mindset of the volunteers in view of the advancing the Russian/Armenian coalition forces, on the one hand, and the ongoing destruction of the Ottoman/Cilician Armenians, on the other.
According to Guevork Gotikian’s article, “La Legion d’Orient et le Mandat Français en Cilicie (1916-1921),” the history of the Armenian Legion can be divided into three main periods: The constitutive stages of the Legion were undertaken from September 1915 to November 1916; its organizational efforts were made from November 1916 to October 1918;and the period of disillusion, desperation and distrust spanned October 1918 to September 1920.This last period falls outside of the scope of this article, as it occurred after the Battle of Arara.
The formation of the Armenian Legion cannot be understood unless one returns to the massacres and deportations of the Cilician Armenians initiated in the summer of 1915. The history of the formation of the Legion is interwoven with the heroic acts of self-defense in the Musa Dagh (Djebel Moussa) region in August 1915. During the black days of that summer, when the Armenians of Cilicia were being dragged from their homeland, the inhabitants of the Musa Dagh region took up arms as an alternative to the certain death that awaited them. The heroic resistance was ended and approximately 4,000 Armenians were rescued when the French Warship, the Guichen, miraculously appeared on the coastline on Sept. 12, 1915, and saved the Djebelis from extermination. The history of the Legion d’Orient begins with the subsequent arrival and encampment of the deportees at Port Said in Egypt.
After the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli (April 1915-January 1916), the Entente Powers were in a search of a new front to outflank the Ottoman forces and knock them out of the war. The plans for conquering Constantinople turned out to be a complete fiasco, and came at a great price. Thus, the military maneuvers and operations upon a new territory were considered to be crucial by the British and French authorities. Furthermore, although France and Britain were military allies at the time, and were together fighting the Ottoman Empire, which was on the side of the Central Powers (Austria, Germany, and Bulgaria), there was acute competition over control of the Levant. The former intended to expand its control and colonize Cilicia and Lebanon, yet it feared the presence of British troops, which outnumbered French forces in the Levant and had the high hand in taking control of the region. In order to compensate for this deficit, the French authorities deemed it necessary to form additional fighting units to counter-balance British forces in the Levant. The utilization of the Armenian deportees—mostly from Musa Dagh—were thus settled at Port Said as a counter-balancing measure.
The idea to form an Armenian unit surfaced in the early months of 1915. In February and March of that year, Mikael Varantian proposed the formation of a 15,000-20,000-strong unit—comprised of Armenian volunteers from the U.S. and the Balkans—to the Russian, British, and French ambassadors in Sofia, Bulgaria, on behalf of the ARF Western Bureau. After receiving military training in Cyprus, the force would land on Cilician territories and continue the war against the Ottomans. Despite the approval of the Russian and British ambassadors, the French refused it.
The usage of the Egyptian-Armenians as fighting units was likelythe result of efforts by the Armenian National Delegation, which was formed in Egypt and led by Boghos Nubar Pasha. Nubar Pasha was relentless in his attempts to secure significant amounts of provisions, arms, and munitions for the Cilician Armenians, in view of the initiated destruction in Cilicia. The Allied forces at the time were not able to send additional troops to bolster the quasi-resistance of the Cilician Armenians, since they had focused most of their military strength on the Gallipoli campaign.
In a dispatch sent to the All-Armenian Catholicos of Etchmiadzin on July 27, 1915, Nubar Pasha wrote that “by the time we wait for Constantinople to fall and the landing of allied forces on Cilician territories afterwards, no Armenians will be left in Cilicia. Therefore, it is a matter of life and death for us, to prevent the destruction and deportations of Cilician Armenians at all cost.” Yet by the time General Maxwell, the commander of British troops in Egypt, proposed the formation of an Armenian unit at Port Said on Sept. 19, 1915, it was too late. This time it was Boghos Nubar Pasha who refused the proposal, as he thought it would only serve to stimulate the Muslims of Egypt and stir anti-Armenian sentiments. It should be noted, however, that the formation of an Egyptian-Armenian unit comprised of volunteers from France and the United States was first suggested to Maxwell on July 20, 1915by the Armenian National Security Council of Egypt, in view of the growing enthusiasm of both the local Armenians and the deportees to participate in the war. They saw it as the perfect opportunity to avenge their historical enemy.
The decision to establish this Armenian unit and incorporate it into the Legion d’Orient of the French Army, came only in 1916, when the disastrous outcome of the Gallipoli campaign was obvious to the Entente Powers. This time, it was General Clayton, the director of the Intelligence Office at Cairo, who suggested the formation of a unit based in Cyprus (and under the French flag) to Paul Camban, the French ambassador in London. The proposal was approved by the Armenian National Delegation under Boghos Nubar Pasha. What led the Delegation to accept the proposal was the news of victory by the Russian army on the eastern front, together with seven Armenian voluntary units. The formation of additional Armenian units was thus seen, at least by the Armenian side, as being a counterpart to the Russian-Armenian battalions, which would attack the Ottoman Empire mainly from the southern part of Cilicia. The Delegation approved the proposal on the condition that the prospective Armenian Legion fight only in Cilicia and be exempt from participating on other fronts. For the Entente side, especially the French, the Armenian Legion would counter-balance the British troops in the Levant and facilitate the Entente forces’ move into Ottoman territory from the south, as an alternative to Gallipoli.
The zeal of the Armenian deportees at Port Said to fight had a two-fold psychological element: They wanted to avenge the enemy that was responsible for the death of their loved ones in Western Armenia and Cilicia, and at the same time they were eager to be a part of the final victory against the Turkish-German forces. Thus, on the one hand, they felt anger/revenge/mourning, and on the other conquest/triumph/enthusiasm/motivation. This preceded the formation of the Legion and played an important role in the successful operations of the Armenian recruits.
On Sept. 21, 1916, General Pierre Roques, the French Minister of War at the time, dispatched a team led, by General Ferdinand Romieu, to investigate the military prospects in Cairo and Alexandria, and look into the possibility of establishing an Armenian military camp in Cyprus. The team was tasked with recording the first association of 500 men, comprised of the refugees at Port Said and the Armenian POWs interned at a camp near Bombay. It would also look into the possibility of including Syrians and other Ottoman subjects who were ready and willing to fight the Ottoman forces. The team was supposed to complete its task by October 1916.
On Nov. 15, 1916, the Legion was finally formed. Against the demands of the Armenian National Delegation, it was first called the Legion d’Orient as a precautionary measure and as a disguise against possible reprisals from the Muslims and in view of its potential to include those Christian Syrians who showed a preparedness to fight the Turks. However, it was clear that the Legion was destined for the Armenians especially. Hence the Egyptian Armenians, the Djebelis, and the Armenian POWs came to form the first battalion of the Legion d’Orient.
However, despite the official declaration by the French authorities on the Legion’s formation, the judicial status of the Armenian soldiers was still ambiguous by October 1917. They were deemed auxiliary forces, and were not yet completely incorporated in the French army. In addition, whereas Article 3 of the Legion’s authorizing French document stated that “special instruction will fix their allocations which would be in principle equivalent to that of the regular French soldier,” the Armenian soldiers receive neither familial allocations, nor any other benefits.
After successful negotiations, the British authorities gave their approval on the establishment of a military camp in Cyprus. Although the British were suspicious of French propaganda in the region, especially in Syria, the high commissioner of Cyprus, Sir John Clausen, gave his approval for the camp. General Romieu decided to establish it in Monarga, 24 km. north of Famagusta, and far from Turkish or Greek elements, to prevent clashes. A certain number of men from Djebel Moussa with physical aptitude were engaged in the building of the camp. General Romieu had given numerous tasks to the men to keep the best, as far as physical aptitude and military discipline were concerned. Thus, in December 1917, from a total of 182 recruits, 54 were called off, namely the 30%. The camp was ready to welcome recruits by Jan. 1, 1917.
The camp had three major sections, because of the lack water in one place. The first camp was located at the center, was built by the Djebelis, and was called Camp Souédié. The second was in the north and was called Monarga, since it covered the town of Monarga, emptied from its civil population. This was reserved for the officers, the bureaus, the generals, and the canteen of the 2nd battalion. The third camp was nameless and was referred to as“the camp of the new well,” as it was a close to a well that was dug in the spring of 1917 to satisfy the water demands of the Legionnaires. It was essentially comprised of the Syrians. The scarcity of water was a problem for the whole Legion. The choice of Cyprus came with a clear purpose: The congregation of an Armenian force near Alexandretta, which was a point of junction and communication between the Caucuses, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Levant, threatened the significant communication lines of the Ottoman forces. General Romieu, who was familiar with the “Oriental mentality,” took command of the Legion.
The expenses of the Legion were paid for by the French government. As for the military leadership, the command was assumed by French generals and officers, who chose Armenian adjutants among the Legionnaires. The junior officer staff was mainly made up of Armenians, including experienced officers such as Jim Chankalian (U.S.), John Shishmanian (U.S.), Sarkiss Boghossian (Ottoman Army), among others. Some of these Armenian officers, had already a high reputation as captains, sergeants etc. in foreign armies.
Those who wanted to join the Legion had to first meet the conditions: Ifa candidate’s physical aptitude was deemed acceptable, he then had to pass a medical test. Medical centers varied according to the candidate’s location. For those coming from France and the U.S., they had to pass by the medical centers in La Havre, Bordeaux, or Marseille. After passing the medical tests, he had to procure an official document from the Armenian committees operating in his country or the French government justifying his honest intent for serving in the Legion. The volunteers who came from America were to have an official paper from Mihran Sevalsky, who represented the Armenian National Delegation in the U.S. Those coming from the Orient were required to procure the document either from the French embassy at Port Said in Egypt or the Legion’s commanding office in Cyprus. Those who were unfit had the choice of returning to their home country or being sent to France to work in the war factories or to perform agricultural labor.
In January 1917, three Armenian delegates, Ardavast Hanemian, Stépan Sabahgulian, and Mihran Damadian—representing the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Hnchakian Party, and the Ramgavar Party, respectively—went to North America to organize the recruitment process. However, J. Jusserand, the ambassador of France in Washington, was against the recruitment efforts; he feared a diplomatic crisis given that the United States was still neutral. Although the U.S. entered the war on April 2, 1917, on behalf of the Entente powers, the problem remained; the U.S. government had declared war only on Germany, and was not hostile to the Ottoman government. General Roques therefore recommended that the recruiting campaign be carried out with extreme caution through the Armenian and Syrian committees, and without the involvement of consular agents, to avoid any diplomatic tensions or problems. In any case, the men were mostly recruited from America, Egypt, France, and Western Armenia. Eight men also reportedly came from Ethiopia.
Although in the preliminary negotiations, it was agreed that the Legion d’Orient (or as it later became known, the Armenian Legion)would participate in the battles waged only on the Cilician territories, by 1917 it had become clear that the soldiers were being trained to participate in the campaigns at the Palestinian front, where the French Army was very weak. The political intrigues among the Entente Powers thus affected the deployment and the actions of the Legion, and diverted it from its initial target—Cilicia. Insofar as the British troops outnumbered the French in the Levant, the Armenian forces trained in Cyprus constituted a significant reinforcement for the French. According to the Armenian National Delegation, the Armenian Legion would thus constitute the nucleus for a future Armenian Army, which would be established on the emancipated territories of Cilicia. The Legion was seen as the precursor of an autonomous Cilicia. However, as we have seen, the formation of the Legion pursued both military and subtle political interests.
Steps to form the Legion were technically taken in December 1916.By February 1917, a squad of 400-500 men, most of them deported from Djebel Moussa and dispersed at Port Said, were joined by dozens of local Egyptian Armenians. Together they constituted the 1st and 3rd companies of the Legion. Until July of the same year, when recruitment ended, 1,400 men had already been recruited. It was not until the end of July that the first group of Armenian-American recruits arrived. Four new companies, of which one mortar unit, were established by October. At the beginning of 1918, 1,700 men were already registered as official Legionnaires. The increase in the number of Armenian recruits can be explained by the repeated promises by the Entente powers of an autonomous Cilicia after the war. Yet, the Armenians were not aware of the already signed Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, which stipulated the partition of the Ottoman Empire among the Entente Powers and excluded all minorities from the scene—hence obstructing the formation of an Armenian nation-state. The Armenian National Delegation did not realize that it was the victim of subtle political intrigue, and was being used by the French authorities as a counter-balancing force against the British. The aspirations of the Powers became clear in July 1917, when General Bailloud, the inspector-general of the French troops in Egypt, after his inspection of the Legion d’Orient, said in a declaration that a military expedition to the north of Syria was no longer envisaged, and that the Legion would be incorporated into a French expeditionary force and deployed to Palestine to fight alongside the British Army.
Numerous complaints on behalf of the Armenians followed, to the point where Georges Clemenceau intervened to assure Nubar Pasha that the French government had nothing to do with it, that the decision had been made by the French War Ministry. He assured Nubar Pasha that the government opposed the deployment of the Armenian Legion in Palestine, since this was a violation of the 1916 agreement. He continuously reminded the Legionnaires that they were pre-destined for northern Syria and Cilicia. The Armenian National Delegation was faced with a new dilemma: disband the Legion, which was contrary to Armenian interests, or conform to the new state of affairs. If the French authorities insisted on sending the Legion to Palestine, the only weapon that the Delegation possessed was the discouragement of further recruitments, starting on Oct. 1.How effective an Allied landing on Cilician territories could be was attested to by German field marshal, L. Hindenburg. He was surprised that the Entente Powers did not benefit from Cilicia—the Ottomans’ Achilles’ heel—as the region did not contain a significant concentration of Ottoman troops. Even Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister, was worried the Allied powers would eventually identify the Turks’ weakness. However, as we have seen, that was not the case. The French were eager to pursue their interests rather than secure significant territories in northern Syria.
Disillusion with the French authorities proved detrimental to the military discipline of the Legion. From a squadron of 140 volunteers, at times only 70 consistently showed up for the military exercises. Some were hesitant to join, and others quit after finding lucrative jobs outside the camp. The British military authorities did not facilitate the task, either; they invited the soldiers to handle army supplies and gave them 1.5 francs per day. Incidentally, those who did join the military exercises did not receive a sufficient amount of food.
The military training beganat the end of 1916, and including shooting, self-defense, battle formations and tactics, and the utilization of the terrain in different military situations. “The best are the Armenians who were former soldiers in the Turkish Army, and were captured in Mesopotamia or have deserted it, followed by the Armenians from Djebel Moussa, and the ones coming from America, and finally the Syrians,” General Bailloud commented.
The legion was called upon for its first mission in the spring of 1918.It was to be sent to the battlefronts of Palestine and was to be incorporated into the French Detachment for Palestine-Syria (Détachment Français de Palestine-Syrie, or DFPS) under the command of Colonel Piépape. The Legion was used to perform minor sabotage campaigns and incursions on the Turkish coast, such as destroying the communication lines or blowing up supplies. In May 1918, the first two battalions were transported to the Ferry Camp of Egypt, near Ismailia. The 3rd battalion, with the logistics company, stayed in Cyprus under the command of Chesnet. From July 10-13, the Legion d’Orient joined the French detachment at Mejdel in Palestine behind the British front.
The Battle of Arara
The Battle of Arara was part of the whole-scale military operations taking place in Palestine, where the German-Turkish alliance had strong fortifications and a significant number of troops. The Armenian Legion fought valiantly in this battle,with the hope of restoring a New Armenia.
The operations in Palestine were supervised by the general commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), General Allenby. With the aim of re-taking the offensive, the latter dispatched a force of 35,000 infantry and 400 artillery units to Palestine against the 8,000 infantry and 130 artillery units of the German-Ottoman forces. The British forces were reinforced by the French Detachment, which include the Armenian Legion. It was decided that the attack would commence on Sept. 19, 1918, at 4 a.m.
The general offensive began at the appointed hour. Facing the French troops, the 701st, 702nd, and 703rd German battalions, commanded by General Van Oppen, were entrenched and held positions on the hill of Arara. They formed the most solid nucleus of the enemy army. A battalion from the Armenian Legion, commanded by General Romieu, marched and held positions on the right side of the French troops. The 2nd Armenian battalion was kept on hold as reserves.
The day before the attack, the 1st battalion had undertaken preparatory maneuvers. The next day, the 2nd battalion won the rump 26 after five hours of heavy fighting, despite the constant shelling and artillery fire from German forces. The Legionnaires succeeded in capturing the first German defense line. Unwilling to come to terms with this strategic loss, the enemy resorted to counter-attacks. After five hours of battle, the German-Ottoman forces succumbed and began to retreat, giving way for the Legionnaires to capture the 2nd and 3rd German defense lines. The 1st battalion succeeded in taking the summit of Arara.
In total, the French detachment captured 212 prisoners, which included 16 officers. The Armenian Legion lost 22 men, and saw 80 injured and four missing in action; of those killed in action, some were sergeants, captains, and corporals. Their sacrifice and the achievements of the Armenian Legion were truly essential for the success of the operation.
In a dispatch sent to the Armenian National Delegation on Oct. 21, 1918, General Allenby highly evaluated and praised the Armenian Legion and the valor they showed on the battlefield. “I am proud to have under my command a Legion of Armenians,” he wrote. “They performed very well, and had a grand role in securing our victory.” During the funeral of their fellow comrades, General Romieu, too, praised the achievements of the Armenian Legion, and the sacrifice of the martyrs, as well as the full commitment of the survivors.
Although the Legion did not come to represent the nucleus for a future Armenian army, as it was disbanded by the end of 1920, it demonstrated a spirit of devotion and patriotism. And although the political intrigues of the Entente Powers prevented the creation of an autonomous Cilicia, and brought about its acquisition by the European Powers, the legacy of the Armenian Legion continues to shine on the pages of Armenian and French history.
The history of the Armenian Legion, and its achievements under foreign flags, is about the people who attempted to come to grips with the destruction and devastation of their fellow Armenians. It is a story of their valor, honor, duty, and sacrifice. And it shows how hundreds of Armenians, from different social, cultural, and economic backgrounds, could unite for a greater cause and a noble purpose. Thus, as the centennial of the Armenian Genocide approaches, it is worth remembering the heroic acts of our volunteer units, who fought to keep the vision of an independent Armenia.