Remembering the Armenian Legionnaires and their Fight for Armenian Independence

Although the Armenian Legionnaires did not fight in the battles of Sardarabad, Bash-Abaran or Karakkilisa, those battles were in May 1918 while WWI was ongoing, and Armenia was yet to become an independent nation. The Legionnaires’ purpose was to fight the Turks and liberate Cilicia for a supposedly future Armenia. The Legionnaires fought at the Battle of Arara in Palestine and defeated the Turks. Later skirmishes occurred in Adana and Mersin. At the time, Russia controlled the Armenian territory in the Caucuses. 

If the Bolsheviks did not have their revolution, would Russia have conceded to give their portion of Armenia to the Armenians to establish their own country after WWI? I doubt it. It was only after the Czarist regime fell and Russia was in turmoil that the Armenians in Russian-occupied Armenian territory were forced to establish a Republic, and only after Georgia and Azerbaijan did so. 

According to the promise made by the French, the goal of the Legionnaires was to liberate Cilicia and return it to the Armenians. That never happened. The Armenian Legion was formed in November 1916 and really wasn’t effective until mid-late 1917. Russian Armenia was still under Russian control. The Armenian soldiers fighting on the Turkish eastern front were part of the Russian Army just as the Legionnaires were part of the French Army. There was no independent Armenian government army until Russia collapsed and Armenia declared itself independent in May 1918. 

The Legionnaires could not desert the French army at that time to join the newly formed Armenian army and consequently be labeled as traitors to France. They were engaged in the fighting to help the Armenian cause for independence even though they were fighting under French control. Also, we must not forget that the Legionnaires were promised Cilicia for the Armenians. The Legionnaires could not leave the French Army and go to fight at Sardarabad and Bash-Abaran. It was basically a two-front war for the Armenians, one on the Turkish eastern front and the other in Palestine and Cilicia. 

There is no doubt in my mind that if Cilicia was allowed to become an independent Armenian territory along with the continuation of the Armenian Republic established in 1918 and recognized by the Allies (Treaty of Sèvres) and not under Soviet rule, there would have been a unification of both. If the British didn’t interfere, I do feel that General Antranig with his 50,000 volunteers could have taken over parts of historic Armenia. The Turkish army was in shambles in late 1918 with little resistance in most of historic Armenia. But Armenia was double crossed by the Allies, namely England and France, along with no support from the United States.

The bottom line is that Armenians at that time, whether they were Legionnaires or part of the Armenian army in Russia (later Armenia), all had the desire to have a country of their own. The politics of stronger nations would not allow that to happen. A stronger Armenian leadership back then may have helped. Don’t forget. When the Genocide began, the Turks rounded up all the Armenian intellectuals that they could find and killed them. Cut off the head and the body will die.


Ezan Bagdasarian

Ezan Bagdasarian

Ezan Bagdasarian is a retired customs and border protection supervisor and acting chief inspector. He lives in Gainesville, VA. His father was in the Armenian Legion as part of the French Foreign Legion and saw action in Palestine and Cilicia.

1 Comment

  1. The Armenian Legionnaires are most certainly deserving of remembrance and further study. A good, recently published book on the subject is The Armenian Legionnaires: Sacrifice and Betrayal in World War I by Susan Paul Pattie.

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